Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Spikes and Steering Wheels

In the Armchair Economist, Steven Landsburg writes:
If you find it hard to believe that people drive less carefully when their cars are safer, consider the proposition that people drive more carefully when their cars are more dangerous. This is, of course, just another way of saying the same thing, but somehow people find it easier to believe. If the seat belts were removed from your car, wouldn’t you be more cautious in driving? Carrying this observation to the extreme, Armen Alchian of the University of California at Los Angeles has suggested a way to bring about a major reduction in the accident rate: Require every car to have a spear mounted on the steering wheel, pointing directly at the driver’s heart. Alchian confidently predicts that we would see a lot less tailgating.
But a colleague of Gordon Tullock's attributes it to him:
Gordon also has his own unique brand of humor. I remember his many outrageous examples that tickled my funny-bone. For instance, he'd insist that if the government were really serious about people driving safely, there ought to be a law mandating an iron spike protruding from the steering wheel in the direction of the driver's breast.
So is it Alchian or Tullock who first came up with this colorful hypothesis? Or someone else?


Blogger Michael Drake said...

I know the merits of the postulated risk equilibrium are sort of off-point, but isn't the relevant issue whether the activity is safer all things considered? E.g., if I were forced to drive a car loaded with a nuclear bomb and sporting hair-trigger mechanisms on both bumpers, I would certainly drive with all the safety I could muster; nonetheless, I'm pretty sure I'd feel safer driving a Pinto with a full tank of gas while drunk and blindfolded.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Good point!

5:44 PM  
Blogger Joseph B said...

I once told some fellow college students about this theory of driving safety while on a road trip. One girl was unimpressed, saying that many more people would die. I said there might be more deaths the first year, then fewer after that, because all the reckless drivers would have removed themselves from the driving (and gene) pool, leaving only the cautious people. That answer was somewhat tongue in cheek, but it leads to another idea.

If a wreck removed the at-fault driver from the driving pool (by a means other than death, say), the roads should be safer. A year banishment from driving if at fault in an accident would not only keep the most dangerous drivers off the roads, but would also make other people more cautious, wanting to avoid the year ban. Of course, this would come with other effects. People would probably drive much more slowly, meaning that routine tasks would take more time. Maybe there would be more demand for public transportation as well, both from people who don't want to risk driving and from those who are banned.

7:14 PM  

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